Review: Kansas Raiders (1950)

I like it when Audie Murphy plays mean. After all, we're talking about the most decorated combat soldier in the history of the U.S. military, a man who was not only familiar with violence, but also celebrated for it. 1950's Kansas Raiders gives the soldier-turned-actor a chance to sink his teeth into one of the meatiest roles of his still-fledgling acting career: the legendary outlaw Jesse James. Hollywood has always had a special fascination with outlaws, often celebrating them while clumsily and half-heartedly trying to insert some sort of moral lesson, mostly to keep the censors happy. I can't help but think of the episode of The Brady Bunch where Bobby sees a movie about Jesse James and then decides that he's his hero and has to be corrected by his chagrinned parents. That's a pretty good metaphor for Hollywood's love affair with the dark side--"mischief sure is fun! Er...but it's wrong." 

Kansas Raiders is the fictionalized tale of the James-Younger gang and their exploits with Quantrill's Raiders, an infamous band of bushwhackers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. In simplified movie logic, the James-Younger gang are the heroes of the story, if outlaws can be such a thing; they're certainly the protagonists, despite their criminal tendencies. Jesse and his brother Frank (Richard Long), Kit Dalton (Tony Curtis), and Cole Younger (James Best) are looking for Quantrill (played with intensity by Brian Donlevy) so they can saddle up and wreak some havoc, but this version of the story decides to give Jesse a noble streak that sits flush alongside his murderous tendencies. It's a way of softening some of the cold-blooded violence that we see on screen, but likely also Universal-International's way of having their cake and eating it too. Essentially, the version of Jesse James that this film gives us is one who has witnessed the brutal murders of his loved ones, leaving him with a thirst for revenge on anyone that would hurt the helpless. When he realizes that Quantrill's Raiders are essentially just like the people who ravaged his family, he's forced to confront his hypocrisy.

Or something like that. This is a 1950s western, after all, and much of the moral and ethical struggle is largely unspoken. However, as with many other movies made during the decade, there's a streak of true grit running through the picture that lends authenticity to what could otherwise be pure fantasy--and in other genres, often was. As mentioned at the start of this review, Murphy's Jesse James is just plain mean; he shoots people without regard, and there's a spectacular knife fight in the movie that ends with Murphy dispatching his opponent with the cold efficiency of a hunter gutting his kill. 

On the note of violence, there's a common misconception that westerns, especially those from the 1950s, are saccharine and tame, as if Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger embody the entirety of the American Western until the mid-sixties when Leone and the Italians showed Hollywood how it was supposed to be done; in this fictional narrative, Hollywood said "sorry, we've been doing it wrong all this time" and then got busy on movies like The Wild Bunch and The Outlaw Josey Wales. It's a quaint notion, but it's cow hockey. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and there are scores--make that hundreds--of stellar American Westerns that predate what Leone and his many disciples were chasing with their own films. For those in doubt, the work is there, waiting to be discovered, and Kansas Raiders is one of many films that proves to any doubter that Hollywood westerns, especially those of the 1950s, were often brutal, powerful, and filled with characters that had been informed by real life--in this case, Audie Murphy and his unbelievable combat feats that left him haunted by PTSD. Don't believe me? It's all on screen.  

For any seasoned cinephile, a big part of the fun is seeing actors they enjoy doing what they do best. Murphy is no great thespian, but he had an authenticity that couldn't be faked. I get a lot of joy in seeing Tony Curtis, who is unable to hide his Bronx accent, perched atop a horse and clearly enjoying every second of his screen time. Likewise, Western-veteran James Best gets a few moments to really shine. I grew up loving The Dukes of Hazzard and--for the longest time--only knew Jim Best as Roscoe P. Coltrane, the bumbling, corrupt sheriff of Hazzard County. It was only later when I started to discover movies and entertainment older than I am that I realized just what an amazing life in Hollywood Mr. Best had enjoyed. If anything, Roscoe was just the final grace note on a long, wonderful career. Though I know he was grateful to be so well-known for his later TV work, the film historian in me bristles that so many TV stars of the 70s and 80s have incredible film careers that my generation and those after me have yet to discover. 

Kansas Raiders has had a good life, both with its reputation among the fans and its value to the studio. Universal, more than just about any other Hollywood studio, values its film archive, and therefore the movie has been given multiple home media releases over the last 20 years. The latest and greatest of these is a new Blu-ray edition which comes as part of Kino Lorber's Audie Murphy Collection II, which also includes Sierra (1950) and Destry (1954). The cherry on top is a wonderful new commentary from C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, two western film buffs who really know their stuff. In my past conversations with Joyner, I've been impressed (and a little intimidated) and how easily he recalls huge swaths of film history off the top of his head. All of that comes through in his commentaries, which are engaging and will send you scrambling to write down names of the actors, writers, directors, and movies that he casually mentions in passing, each of them worthy of attention. Kansas Raiders is recommended on Blu-ray, but it's especially recommended for anyone clinging to the belief that the American western is safe, soft, and simple. 


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